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Tuesday, Sept. 2, 2014

The Packers Drive for Five

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In February 2011 the Green Bay Packers won the Super Bowl for the fourth time, and 10 months later a 15-1 record had fans confident of a repeat. But the Packers got smacked down in that post-season and the next one. And last season, after fighting through major injuries to win the NFC North at 8-7-1, they had a home playoff game literally slip through their fingers.

But this week the Packers and their fans begin a new season with fresh confidence. Will next February see Lombardi Trophy No. 5 arrive? It wouldn’t surprise the Fairly Detached Observers...

 

Frank: Time for us to add to the racket of “expert” voices predicting who’ll succeed in the NFL.

Artie: Let’s just skip it this time. It’s a fool’s errand; nobody can account for the plagues of injuries that hit some teams.

F: Wise words, but do you remember that last year you nailed the Super Bowl? It’s in our files: “Artie says Seahawks will beat Broncos.”

A: If you say so. I forget my predictions as soon as I make ’em. I guess some prognosticators are just naturally gifted, or slightly less foolish.

F: I had New England in the big game, beating Atlanta—which went 4-12. And for two years before that I insisted San Diego would reach the Super Bowl.

A: Hey, this could be the Chargers’ year. Strange things can happen, like defending Super Bowl champions failing to even make the playoffs.

F: That’s happened three times in the last five years—Baltimore last season, the Giants the year before that and Pittsburgh in the 2009-’10 season. So now, having said how wrong I usually am, this year I’m saying the Packers will go all the way!

A: I think so too, if only because they’re starting the regular season with no injuries that are critical.

F: There’s center JC Tretter’s bad knee...

A: But he’s expected to return at some point. Last year Bryan Bulaga was out for good after the Family Night scrimmage! They were fortunate that the rookie, David Bakhtiari, stepped up at the left tackle spot.

F: But eventually the Packers had to play long stretches without Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews, Jermichael Finley and Randall Cobb. Finley’s not around anymore because of his spinal-cord concerns.

A: Another tight end, Brandon Bostick, will miss some time with a leg thing but should return. B.J. Raji is out for the season with a torn bicep but they seem to have enough options on the defensive line.

F: Everything, with every team, depends on keeping key guys playing. But sooner or later there’s got to be a year when the Packers stay relatively healthy. Why not this year?

A: And if it is, the way that first-team offense looked in the pre-season—holy cow, will they score points!

F: One offensive flaw is that they’ve tended to rank toward the bottom of the league in sacks allowed. In 2012 they were next-to-worst, allowing 51, and last year they ranked 24th, allowing 45.

A: That’s a worry, considering that as always, the biggest thing is keeping Rodgers vertical.

F: But Rodgers has some relief in the form of Eddie Lacy pounding away on the ground, with James Starks and DuJuan Harris adding some “change of pace.”

A: And if Rodgers does go down, they’re much better prepared with Scott Tolzien and Matt Flynn being around all along.

F: Last year, amazingly, the Packers had seven quarterbacks in the picture! In training camp Rodgers’ backups were Vince Young, B.J. Coleman and Graham Harrell. All three were cut before the season and Seneca Wallace and Tolzien were brought in. When Rodgers was hurt Wallace started, but he quickly got hurt and Tolzien took over. And finally they brought Flynn back.

A: I’m really glad they kept both Flynn and Tolzien on the opening roster. As the Journal Sentinel headline said: “Lesson Learned.”

F: Now for the defense. Last year it ranked 24th in passing yards allowed and 25th in rushing yards allowed. So has the D improved enough for a Super Bowl run?

A: It seems so, based on the exhibitions. Last year’s pass D was especially awful with the safeties, mainly Morgan Burnett and M.D. Jennings—the “doctor” who specialized in giving up big plays. Now he’s gone and I think Micah Hyde, Sean Richardson and rookie Ha Ha Clinton-Dix will give Burnett more help. But another factor last year was that they weren’t getting much of a pass rush.

F: For years the question has been, “Who’ll complement Matthews on the other side?” But Matthews wasn’t even there to be complemented for about half the season.

A: Things should be better, assuming Clay keeps his thumbs and hamstrings intact and Julius Peppers has something left from his Chicago years. And there’s Jayrone Elliott, the undrafted rookie out of Toledo, who had five sacks in the pre-season. His playing time will help Peppers stay fresh, so to speak.

F: An improved defense, an explosive offense—what’s not to like? We’ll drop our practice of predicting all the playoff teams, but we are putting Green Bay in the Super Bowl.

A: Packers beat Patriots for the title!

F: And just for kicks I’ll say Packers beat Colts.

 

MORE ON THE TEAM

F: Back to the Packers’ secondary. Remember, the NFL doesn’t want pass defenses to be too effective. The league clearly wants a lot of scoring, and in recent years has tweaked the rules make it ever tougher for D-backs to be aggressive.

A: If you can hold the other team to 27 points and you score 35, things are great.

F: Also, just ranking by yards allowed, how reliable is that?

A: If you’re up 17 points in the fourth quarter you might give up 100-plus passing yards down the stretch but still win easily.

F: And back to Raji for a second. Wasn’t he a question mark coming into the season anyway?

A: Yeah. The other thing about the D-line is that they’re using a somewhat new scheme. No Ryan Pickett, no Johnny Jolly—getting away from the fire hydrants who just stood there trying to plug things up and going with slimmer, more athletic guys...

F: “Slimmer” being a relative term. Wow, if Raji was considered one of the slimmer guys...

A: Anyway, I’m confident because the Packers just have fewer question marks. A year ago they went into the season with worries at left tackle, an unproven running game although there were high hopes for Lacy...

F: Who came in with questions about whether he would hold up, based on an injury history at Alabama.

A: And most of all it was a big mess finding someone to back up Rodgers. Now all those things are settled.

 

THE DIVISION

F: The NFC North has the same old questions. Is this gonna be the year that Jay Cutler—making a measly $22.5 million—becomes a real success? And the same goes for Matthew Stafford in Detroit.

A: I sure don’t see either the Bears or Lions with better talent than the Pack. The Bears will score a lot of points, sure, but their defense needs a ton of improvement. And the Vikings still haven’t solved their QB situation.

 

THE SCHEDULE

F: The Packers play three of their first four games on the road, including stops in Detroit and Chicago. So there’s the potential to stumble there.

A: But Mike McCarthy’s teams have shown they can recover from slow starts.

F: They play the AFC East, which means the Patriots—but at home.

A: Super Bowl preview!

F: They play the NFC South, which means New Orleans, and on the road, and also hosting Carolina, which also made the playoffs last year. And their two “random” opponents are Philadelphia and Seattle.

A: The best thing about this schedule is that there’s no Thanksgiving game. Remember last year they had to play three games in, what, 11 days?

F: Loss to Giants, tie with Minnesota, blowout by the Lions on Thanksgiving Day.

A: They do have a Thursday night game, as every team does. But there’s not much traveling involved—Sept. 28 at Chicago and then hosting Minnesota four nights later.

 

ELSEWHERE IN THE NFL

F: There are always surprising flops and revivals among NFL teams. Kansas City came out of nowhere last year and both Houston and Atlanta shocked everyone by collapsing.

A: Lots of people had one or both of them in the Super Bowl.

F: I like Peyton Manning but I think the Broncos are in for a flop. Conversely, I’m thinking the Giants will have an up year because they’re due for one.

A: I don’t buy Denver either, even though most of the AFC predictions I see involve Denver and/or New England.

F: So which teams will be surprisingly good?

A: A lot of people like the Arizona Cardinals, though it might not be so surprising because they did win 10 games last year.

F: Hey, maybe I should go back to projecting the Chargers for the Super Bowl.

A: Well, they do have a pretty good QB in Philip Rivers.

F: But he’s often come up short at crucial times. I wonder, is he the AFC version of—drum roll, please—your favorite QB whipping boy?

A: No way. Rivers is much better than Tony Romo, who, I may have mentioned is NOT a good quarterback!

 

THE BADGERS’ BIG FADE

F: Wisconsin had a 17-point lead early in the second half, then went totally cold and saw LSU roar back to win, 28-24. Your reaction?

A: Three big words—“What the Hell”—followed by plenty of exclamation points and question marks. It sure didn’t help that the defense, with a totally revamped front seven, lost two of the starting linemen.

F: LSU did seem to wear them down on the ground in the fourth quarter.

A: And the choice of Tanner McEvoy as the starting quarterback—or rather, the choice to keep him in for the whole dang game—sure didn’t help! I was dumbfounded because his throwing was so bad. It looked like they’d just pulled somebody out of high school.

F: The broadcasters went over his football history and I said to myself, “Wow, he really hasn’t played quarterback all that much.” He apparently only did it in high school as a senior...

A: And last year UW moved him to safety. So why is somebody so unproven, who doesn’t have a good arm, the No. 1 guy?

F: Coach Gary Andersen really likes that running dimension that McEvoy has over Joel Stave. And McEvoy did run for 40 yards—but that was only 10 yards under his passing total.

A: And really, they hardly ran any plays to utilize McEvoy’s presumed extra dimension. So, when it becomes obvious that he ain’t gonna pass the Badgers back into the game, why not use Stave? A little QB by committee wouldn’t be bad. But I wonder if Andersen is being hard-headed just to show who’s in charge?

F: Speaking of that, the big mystery coming out of the game was what happened to Melvin Gordon in the second half. He ran for 76 yards in the first half and 63 on the first play of the third quarter, but got only three more carries after that and wasn’t on the field for most of UW’s possession time.

A: Sunday morning on the radio talk shows and fan-comment places on the Web, there was a rumor going around that Gordon had said something to Andersen or an assistant about putting Stave in. The rumor has it that he was being disciplined.

F: This rumor comes from people who supposedly saw something on the sideline?

A: I guess. And last week Gordon made a comment that “people definitely overlook” Stave. But would any coach really punish one of his star players in such a big game?

F: The Journal Sentinel’s Jeff Potrykus got some odd postgame quotes from Andersen. First he said, “There was a little bit of a scenario with Melvin being completely ready to go at halftime. But he came out and hit the long run and he seemed to be OK.” Then, asked why Gordon was out so much, Andersen said, “I don’t know that.”

A: The head coach doesn’t know why his No. 1 rusher wasn’t on the field?

F: Potrykus mentioned that last year against Minnesota Gordon was held out for a while after fumbling on his first carry, and that the decision came from the running-backs coach at the time. I know the head coach has to delegate stuff, but is it possible that holding out a star player is entirely up to an assistant?

A: Presumably Andersen did notice that Corey Clement was getting most of the second-half carries, not Gordon.

F: Potrykus said that Gordon, when asked about his condition in the second half, said, “I was good, man... They went with Corey… Obviously you get hit… but I’m A-OK.”

A: It’s all mighty strange. And not a good sign. Somebody knows something. But the Badgers sure don’t need this kind of thing bubbling up, especially when they obviously have a QB issue to deal with.

 

HOLD ON, BREWERS FANS

F: A tight pennant race is one thing, but the one in the National League Central got too tight over the weekend. Thanks to the Brewers’ 1-5 West Coast swing, they and Cardinals entered the week, and the final month, dead even with 26 games left.

A: And with a four-game get-together at Miller Park starting Thursday. I can’t watch... but I will.

F: Entering the week, the Brewers had held at least a share of first place since April 5. The Cardinals managed to tie them for one day just before the all-star break, and they got a half-game away twice after that couldn’t get past.

A: Now Yadier Molina is back from his thumb injury, but overall the Cardinals have had trouble scoring consistently, This is the year to beat ’em!

F: But somewhat surprisingly, the Brewers’ offense also has been way too spotty. After scoring 10 runs in the opener in San Diego, they totaled 11 in the five losses to the Padres and Giants.

A: No wonder Dough Melvin tried to claim Justin Morneau off waivers from Colorado. What a shame that didn’t happen! The Rockies pulled Morneau back and apparently wanted too much to make a swap—probably Jimmy Nelson, at least. Morneau would have really helped the up-and-down offense, adding a proven .300 hitter. And the Crew would have had him for next year too, at a pretty manageable salary.

F: But Sunday the Brewers did succeed in addressing another of your worries: a melting-down bullpen. They got Jonathan Broxton from Cincinnati for two players to be named later.

A: Excellent move! Broxton had great numbers with the Reds (1.86 ERA, 1.01 WHIP) and he has experience closing, which could come in very handy if Frankie Rodriguez stays shaky.

F: At the time the Broxton deal was made, K-Rod had given up homers in his previous two outings—Andrew McCutcheon’s last Sunday and a game-tying shot by Rene Rivera in San Diego. Throw in Matt Kemp’s homer in L.A. and it made three times in four outings that K-Rod was taken deep.

A: Fortunately for him, he had a two-run cushion to play with against the Pirates and Dodgers, so he still got the saves. But that’s pretty disturbing. And some of the guys in front of K-Rod also had trouble in August, including the lefties Will Smith and Zach Duke.

F: But Melvin and Ron Roenicke have been lucky or skillful, or both, in coming up with people to plug weak spots. Nelson gave the rotation a lift after being called up during the team’s July slump. Mike Fiers has been brilliant while Matt Garza’s been on the disabled list. Gerardo Parra was a nice pickup to bolster the outfield...

A: Especially with Ryan Braun dealing with various nagging aches.

F: Elian Herrera has looked good when he’s replaced the struggling Jean Segura at shortstop. And now Jeremy Jeffress has revived his career as one of the setup guys for K-Rod.

A: And now there’s Broxton. Plus, if Garza can come back and be the guy he was, they can move Nelson into late-inning duty.

F: But there’s still that high-and-low offense.

A: Morneau could have helped them score more consistently, so they’d get to the ninth inning with at least a two-run lead.

F: Well, every player and fan wants to be involved in important games in September. And that’s certainly on tap here!

Frank Clines covered sports for The Milwaukee Journal and the Journal Sentinel. Art Kumbalek bleeds green and gold.